It is interesting how uncomfortable the word assassination makes supporters of the President’s supposed power to order the assassination of U.S. citizens. It’s actually not that different from the contortions defenders of torture engaged in to avoid admitting that they were defending torture. Aggressive interrogation methods? Well, sure, that was all right, but torture is clearly wrong. The same meaningless distinction seems to be at work here. As long as we don’t call the assassination of U.S. citizens assassination or execution, but refer to it in some other way, it becomes a bit easier to rationalize and defend.
For years, Israeli targeted killings of militant leaders in Palestine have been referred to as assassinations, and no one has any objections to calling them that because this is what they are and because the people targeted in these assassination attacks are usually members of terrorist groups. Indeed, the bulk of Andrew’s response to Glenn Greenwald is that Al-Awlaki is a member of a terrorist group and is therefore a legitimate target, but he refuses to call killing him an assassination when that is the only thing we could possibly call it. When the U.S. government targets Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders for execution by drone strike, these are sometimes called “decapitation” strikes, which isn’t quite the same as calling it an assassination. Nonetheless, a decapitation strike achieves the purpose of assassination, which is typically to eliminate a high political/military leader to try to throw a government or army or organization into chaos.
The trouble for supporters of this outrageous power-grab is that the word assassination deservedly has strong negative associations. Once they start saying, “Yes, we believe the President has the authority to assassinate U.S. citizens under certain circumstances,” they start to sound rather callous and seem to show serious disregard for the rule of law. Assassination is usually something that fanatics or ideologues do to those in power, so it is a little strange when it is applied to the actions of governments against individuals, but assassination is a tactic that can be used by states or by individuals. It doesn’t cease being an assassination if it is ordered by the government, and it doesn’t cease being an assassination if it is done to someone who belongs to a terrorist group. Al-Awlaki may be everything the government claims that he is, just as Padilla might have been, but that doesn’t eliminate the protections afforded by citizenship. However, even if al-Awlaki’s treason did negate his legal protections as a citizen, the government would still be assassinating him if it had him killed. If supporters of this outrageous power-grab are uneasy about calling it by its proper name, perhaps they should reconsider whether they actually want to support it.